Rio Helmi / 28 Feb 2022


Whilst we are familiar with worldwide protests against Putin’s war in Ukraine, we tend to know less about the resistance within Russia. Given the repression that protesters there face this isn’t a surprise. And yet politically these are some of the most telling counters to this disastrous and delirious aggression that the president has visited not only upon Ukraine but to all of Europe and beyond.

Demonstrators march with a banner that reads “Ukraine—Peace, Russia—Freedom,” in Moscow on February 24, 2022, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. FromDemonstrators march with a banner that reads “Ukraine—Peace, Russia—Freedom,” in Moscow on February 24, 2022, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. (From TThe Atlantic / Dmitry Serebryakov / AP)

Despite the fact that Putin has just signed into law an edict making it a punishable crime for Russian citizens to even speak out against his policies and his war, the remarkable thing is that there are Russians still going out on the streets to protest – so far every day since the invasion began. Although some 6000 Russian citizens are in detention for this “crime”, it is almost impossible to accurately quantify the resistance. But if we look at the simple fact that thousands of Russian citizens continue to dare to speak out despite the threats and very real repercussions, there is no question as to the quality of courage and outrage we are seeing.


Hundreds of thousands of professionals (doctors, scientists, designers, even teachers) have signed a circular letter protesting the invasion of Ukraine: “We were learning and developing our professions in order to provide a better life for our people and the coming generations, not this…” For them Putin was a bad dream that could be shaken off in the morning.


As 2021 progressed there were signs of things coming to a boil in the bunker where Putin spent a reported 18 months of the pandemic. For a start anyone whose absolute loyalty was not guaranteed was excluded from his hideout. Then all Russian military personnel were forbidden to travel overseas, and it became more difficult to transfer funds overseas. As more and more troops deployed to the border with Ukraine, it became evident that Putin was a bad dream that didn’t want to go away.


Nobody could quite believe (or couldn’t bring themselves to believe) that this KGB alumni would really make a bid to drag Russia back into Soviet style Cold War footing, or even worse into a Stalinesque era of unflinching dictatorship; though ex-president Medvedev seemed to be banging nails into the coffin when he very recently stated Russia doesn’t need diplomatic ties with Western countries. But most ominous has been Putin’s regular veiled threats of nuclear strikes. Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky, who used to cover Putin closely and is now living in Berlin, said in an opinion piece for Bloomberg: My analysis of his actions was always based on the assumption of his rationality. Perhaps I was wrong from the start.” 


You could roughly divide the Russian population’s view of Putin prior to the actual invasion into three camps: those for, those against, and those sitting on the fence. But when the nightmare erupted into real life and turned Ukraine’s cities into bomb-cratered zones, it also shook many fence sitters off their seats.


Whilst it is clear that Russia’s gambit, supposedly in response to the “NATO” threat, has had the ironic result of actually revitalizing interest in keeping that pact alive and well, it has also galvanized the growing dissent against Putin and the Kremlin elite. The Kremlin public narrative during the 20 year ascendance of this Machiavellian KGB prince has always been fairly straightforward, as exemplified by deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin’s warm up speech for a Putin appearance in 2014: “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”


Clearly that narrative is wearing thin with many Russians as Putin’s narcissistic belligerence over the decades has risen to unprecedented levels. For those Russians questioning this invasion, the issue isn’t really about superpower politics, economic advantages or the history of Ukraine.


On one hand there’s a humanitarian concern triggered by the brutal killing of innocent Ukrainian people, many of whom have Russian relatives, and the deaths of Russian soldiers to boot. This was supposed to be a clean-cut, ‘peaceful’ invasion that would be over in a day or two. The underestimation of Ukrainian resistance was massive. The invasion has resulted in a senseless and wanton loss of life for a very unclear objective.


On the other hand there is rapidly spreading dismay at how in a matter of days Russia has become an international villain with palpable, practical complications for many Russians who now find their ATM and credit cards blocked, their money transfers not moving, their travel severely curtailed, and the fear of not being welcome anywhere else in the world. While Russians abroad have been in the main silent on their social media, with only a handful daring to speak out, there are those within who are, despite being in much more immediate danger.


In something of a turn-around, Russian ‘independent’ journalist Ksenia Sobchak, allegedly Putin’s goddaughter (Putin attended her baptism) joined other celebrities in a public outcry against the invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps a little self-servingly, in a broadcast discussion, visibly emotional, she criticized ‘this aggression’, for turning Russia into a pariah state.  Bershidsky put it more cleanly: “It is not Putin who is cursed now — it’s all of us Russians.”


The growing suspicion amongst more and more Russians that the president has become mentally unstable is causing is a widening split within Russia, even within nuclear families. One expat Russian friend, originally from St Petersburg, tells me: “My 65 year old Dad insists on joining the protests in the city, while my Mum is a staunch supporter of the government. So at home we don’t talk politics with her.”


It’s a very high stakes gamble that Vladimir Putin is betting on, and his horse is not in the lead. Urban warfare is something which even the most well equipped army fears most. Though the Russians are coming to the table for discussions with Ukraine on the border of Belarus as I write, it’s unclear whether this is some kind of poison pill or a real bid for peace. (update: somewhat predictably nothing came of it!)


NATO members are ramping up air patrols and supplying arms to Ukraine; Ukraine’s Zelensky has demanded immediate EU membership and is supported by Poland; several European countries are demanding that the Russian government be tried for war crimes; there was a rare special session of the UN general assembly scheduled to discuss the situation – the game is changing by the hour. What is clear is that Putin is wagering the status, welfare and in the long run, even the unity of the Russian people on a very uncertain outcome. It’s slowly becoming evident to more and more Russians that Putin is not Russia, and that there can be a better Russia without him.

below: a page for Russians calling for Putin’s impeachment has gathered 249.183 signatures so far